How Luther Reformed Marriage and the Family


Martin Luther, the German Reformer, is generally remembered as the Theological professor, the Bible translator, the writer, even as the composer of hymns. However, Martin Luther was also a husband and a father of six children. He provided the Church its first and most prominent example of a pastoral family.

Reforming Marriage

While still a celibate priest, Luther wrote extensively on marriage. He saw marriage as an institution in as much crisis as the church - and no less in need of reform.

Martin Luther was a leading defender of the dignity of women and the foundational importance of marriage. Luther placed the home "at the centre of the universe." His teaching on marriage and the family (and his personal example) were so radical and so long-lasting that it profoundly and permanently altered the home. If his innovations don't seem so radical to us, it is because of his success in establishing these principles as Christian ideals.

For a thousand years, the single, celibate life had been upheld as the Christian ideal. Sex, though grudgingly permitted inside marriage, was not to be enjoyed. As the Church father, Jerome, declared in the 4th century: "Anyone who is too passionate a lover with his own wife is himself an adulterer." Augustine advocated sexual relations within marriage to be without emotion and primarily for procreation. A catechism of the Catholic Church written in 1494, applies the third deadly sin (impurity) to married people enjoying sex within marriage.

Uplifting Women

Dr. Martin Luther, however, declared war on Greek philosopher Aristotle's depiction on women as "botched males". Luther also criticised Jerome, Cyprian, Augustine, Gregory and other Church fathers for "never having written anything good about marriage."

Luther and the first generation of Protestant Reformers rejected this tradition of over a thousand years, of ascetic sexuality - in both their Theology and their lives. The Reformers rejection of the celibate ideal of the Middle Ages was as great a revolution in the home as their teachings were in the Church. Luther literally transferred the praises and esteem that Christians had traditionally heaped upon the celibate monks and nuns, to marriage and the home.

Luther described marriage as the only institution where a chaste life could be maintained. He insisted that "one cannot be unmarried without sin."

"Marriage pervades the whole of nature". Luther taught that nothing was more natural and necessary than marriage, "for all creatures are divided into male and female."

Luther actively encouraged fathers to remove their daughters from convents. Protestant towns and territories dissolved the cloisters and nunneries and freed women from the sexual repression, cultural depravity, dominance by male clergy and Catholic practices. Wherever the Reformation succeeded monks and nuns who wished to marry received automatic permission to do so.

Luther had a high regard for the ability of women to shape society by moulding its youth and civilising its men through the institution of marriage.
“A companionable woman brings joy to life" Luther wrote. "Women tend to and rear their young, administer the household and are inclined to compassion. God has made them compassionate by nature, so that by their example men may be moved to compassion also."

Children Are a Blessing

Luther also wrote: "People who do not like children are swine, dunces and blockheads, not worthy to be called men and women, because they despise the blessings of God, the Creator and Author of marriage."

"Love begins when we wish to serve others." There is no better school for humility and for loving sacrificial service than marriage and parenthood.

Luther wrote that his entrance into the monastery was "a cowardly act". He saw marriage and fatherhood as an essential requirement for effective pastors. Luther had six children (Hans, Elizabeth, Magdalene, Martin, Paul and Margaretha).

Luther urged parents to always discipline their children with forethought and caution, taking into account the unique personality of each. He taught that: "no power on earth is so noble and so great as that of parents."

Luther also wrote: " There is no bond on earth so sweet nor any separation so bitter as that which occurs in a good marriage."

"A wife is easily taken, but to have abiding love, that is the challenge. One who finds it in his marriage, should thank the Lord God for it. Therefore, approach marriage earnestly and ask God to give you a good, pious girl, with whom you spend your life in mutual love. For sex alone establishes nothing in this regard; there must also be agreement in values and character."

Companionship in Marriage

Because of the importance attached to companionship in marriage the Reformers endorsed, for the first time in the Western Christendom, genuine divorce and remarriage. Although they viewed marriage as a spiritual bond transcending all other human relationships, a marriage could definitely end this side of eternity and a new one begin for separated spouses. "Christ permits divorce for adultery and compels none to remain unmarried thereafter; and St. Paul would rather have us remarry than burn now with lust and later in hell."

The Protestants, in contrast to the Catholics, generally permitted divorce and remarriage on five grounds: adultery, willful abandonment, chronic impotence, life-threatening hostility and willful deceit. The Strasbourg Reformer, Martin Bucer, declared that no proper marriage exists where affection is not regularly shared and where all conversation has ceased.

Protestant marriage courts did not permit divorce and remarriage to occur without first making every effort to re-unite the estranged couple and to revive the dead marriage. However, the Reformers held that the community formed by husband and wife was so fundamental to society, that when all conversation, affection and respect between a husband and wife had irretrievably broken down, it could not be allowed to continue. The marriage bond was so important that one had to fight to save it, and failing success in genuine restoration, the marriage should be recognised to have come to an end.

Never before had women been empowered to divorce abusive husbands. Women from all over Europe fled to Protestant areas, particularly Geneva, to find protection and freedom from abuse.

Luther wrote: "Women have narrow shoulders and wide hips. Therefore they ought to be domestic. Their very physique is a sign from the Creator that He intended them for the home." Luther also wrote: "In domestic affairs, I defer to Katie, otherwise I'm led by the Holy Spirit!"

Model Housewife

Luther's wife, Katherine, was smuggled out of a cloister, hidden in an empty herring barrel. She became a model housewife and an accomplished businesswoman. Luther dubbed her: "the morning star of Wittenberg" as her day began at 4:00am. Even in his last will and testament, Luther revolutionised the home by ignoring the prevalent practice of appointing a male trustee to administer the estate. Luther directly designated his wife Katherine "heir to everything."

Luther wrote: "It is impossible to keep peace between man and woman in family life if they do not condone and overlook each other's faults, but watch everything to the smallest point. For who does not at times offend?"

Luther Home

Luther's home was described as "half home, half hotel". The Luthers housed up to 30 people in their home at a time - students, orphans, the sick and former monks and nuns. Even on his wedding night, Luther couldn't refuse a person in need. At 11:00pm, after all the guests had left, the radical Reformer and critic of Luther, Andreas Karlstadt, knocked at the door. Karlstadt was fleeing the Peasants' War and needed shelter. Luther took him in.

Luther not only made the Bible part of the daily routine in the home, but he also made the singing of hymns central. He played the flute and the lute, and led his children in singing hymns of praise.

Original Founder of Focus on the Family

He also introduced the Catechism to explain the Faith to children, incorporating Scripture memorisation in the daily routine. Perhaps it is time for us to recognise Martin Luther as the true and original founder of Focus on the Family.

For these and so many other reasons, the Reformation in Europe during the 16th century has to be seen as one of the most important epochs in the history of the world. The Reformation gave us the Bible - now freely available in our own languages. The Reformation also pioneered the now-almost universally acknowledged principles of religious freedom, liberty of conscience, the rule of law, separation of powers and constitutionally limited Republics. All of these foundational principles were unthinkable before the Reformation.

The Reformers emphasis on God's sovereignty, that Scripture alone is the final authority, that Christ alone is the head of the Church, that justification is by God's grace, on the basis of the finished work of Christ, received by grace alone. Their teachings on the depravity of man, the Covenant and Church government has influenced law and liberty throughout the Western world and beyond. All of us are beneficiaries of this tremendous movement for Faith and Freedom. It is time that we re-examined the history and the principles of the Reformation.

The Battle for the Family
"If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, then I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point." Martin Luther

The above article is an extract from the Chapter How the Reformation Changed the World in The Greatest Century of Reformation book by Dr Peter Hammond.

“Will You not revive us again that Your people may rejoice in You?” Psalm 85:6

Dr Peter Hammond
Africa Christian Action
PO Box 23632
7735Cape Town
South Africa
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